or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 3/8/09

   March 14th, 2009 Brian Herzog

broken pay phoneThis question started off normal enough, then kind of hit a brick wall 30 seconds into the phone call.

The phone rings on a Friday morning, before there were very many patrons in the building:

Patron: I'm looking for someone who comes to the library a lot. I think he called from the pay phone in the lobby. A number showed on my caller ID, and I think it must have been him calling from the library.
Me: Okay, if you describe him I can look around the library and try to find him.
Patron: He's not at the library.
Me: Oh... then-
Patron: This is an emergency and I need to find him. It's a matter of life and death.
Me: If he's not at the library, have you tried calling his house?
Patron: He doesn't have a phone, and he moved and I don't know his address. But I need to find him. It's a matter of life and death.
Me: If it's that urgent, perhaps you should call the police.
Patron: I talked to them and they won't help. I told them it was an emergency. I know the address where he used to live. I need to find him.
Me: I could look up his old address, but if he's moved, it would give the phone number of the new person. Unless he just moved recently, then it would still be his contact inf-
Patron: He doesn't have a phone. Would his phone number be in there?
Me: If he's moved, his address will still be there, but it might be listed with someone else's name.
Patron: Maybe they know where he is. What's their number?

I was unsure about giving this out. But since it's public, and there's a chance the current residents are his old roommates, I looked up the address in the criss-cross Polk directory and gave her the two numbers listed for that address. She took them down down and quickly hangs up.

Two minutes later the phone rings:

Patron: One number was disconnected and the other one said they never heard of him. I told them it was life and death but they hung up on me.
Me: Hmm. Do you have any idea where he might be?
Patron: No, but this is an emergency and I need to reach him. You don't know where he is? It's a matter of life and death.
Me: Have you tried calling any of his friends? Maybe they would know how to reach him.
Patron: His friends? I'm his friend. [pause] They might know where he is. I'll call them. [click]

And that was that. I felt bad, because throughout the phone call she was becoming more and more distraught, but I really didn't see any way I could help her. I don't know that the police could have either, but I certainly would have thought they could help more than the library. Hmm.

This one is right up there with Rachel R's comment. It's good that people think to call the library, but sometimes their expectations are a bit too high.

How do you find someone quickly if you don't know where they live and they don't have a phone?

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